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*NEW* Our review of accredited A Level specifications


OCR A Level Religious Studies H573 was accredited yesterday, meaning that we RS teachers finally have a full set of specifications to choose from and to plan from in advance of September.  This is very good news as there are still weeks of term time left – and it might not have been so.

The specifications have all changed very significantly since we reviewed the drafts in the Autumn, so here is our review of the final documents:

OCR has moved from being pretty much the worst of the first-drafts to being the best of the final, accredited specifications in my opinion.  It is challenging, don’t get me wrong, but in a good way.  What we like:

  1. The three elements of the course are coherent and complement each other, with plenty of useful connections to be made between them and a distinct lack of the potentially boring elements of content that still lurk in the other specifications.  I am positively looking forward to developing a scheme of work for this one.
  2. The presence of Plato and Aristotle and of the concept and attributes of God on the Philosophy of Religion course is great and really stands out for offering more rigour and philosophical interest than the other boards.  Also good to see Kant and Business Ethics retained on the Ethics course and to see how thoughtfully the topics on the Developments in Religious Thought have been specified, as if by people who actually understand both the subject-matter and what teaching is like – at its best – at this level.
  3. The style of assessment is good, clear and simple – albeit far from ideal for students who would get less than a decent B on the current specifications.  The A Level is through three 120 minute exams, each with 3 out of 4 single-part essays to do, each out of 40 marks.  Students have only one essay-technique to master, but that technique will be tricky for the weaker student to master.

Eduqas has moved the other way, from being by far the best of the first drafts to being a bit of a mess in its final form, in our opinion.  The level of specified detail is now significantly greater than any other specification and the scope of what is specified is wider, without being more interesting or really challenging.  What we like:

  1. The eduqas team are great and really want to help you as a teacher to get the best results for your students.  I have found their customer service and training to be the best of any board.
  2. The sheer level of detail in the specification doesn’t leave much room for guess-work.  At least they are up-front about what they expect, which is something because they seem to be expecting a great deal!
  3. The style of assessment is probably the best out there, with three two hour exams and only two two-part structured essays to write in each.  Again, like OCR, there is only one style of essay-question to master – but this is a structured essay with a part a out of 20 (A01) and a part b out of 30 (A02), which might be more accessible if it wasn’t for the sheer number of topics these essays might have to address.  On the other hand, a positive result of the number of topics is that it has justified them giving students choice than elsewhere on their exam-papers, with one either/or question and then a choice of one from three other questions

AQA remains the odd-one out in having just two exams, but in a surprise move they have changed from having the Religion content “integrated” into Philosophy of Religion and Religious Ethics (if only it really was integrated!) to putting the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics together in one three-hour exam and putting the Study of Religion and “Dialogues” topics into the other three-hour exam.  I can’t really see the logic of putting students through two three hour exams, rather than three two hour exams, especially when it doesn’t have the benefit of allowing schools to teach students towards two exams labelled as “Philosophy” and “Ethics”. This strategy seems both unappealing and inaccessible to weaker students.  In addition, the exams contain compulsory questions AND a different question-styles (shades of Edexcel) which makes it harder to train middling students to do well.

For reference, AQA Component One is examined by two compulsory two-part questions, each worth 10 marks and 15 marks, on each of Philosophy of Religion and Religious Ethics, where questions may span more than one topic. Obviously enough, in each two-part question, the first part tests AO1 and the second part tests AO2, which is arguably easier for students than integrating the two as OCR demand, yet writing four two-part questions in three hours may end up being more of a push than writing four single-part essays would be (as in University final exams…).  Component Two is examined by two compulsory two-part questions, each worth 10 marks and 15 marks relating to the chosen religion. Then students have to answer one unstructured synoptic question from a choice of two (25 marks) on each of the dialogue between Philosophy of Religion and Religion and the dialogue between Ethical Studies and Religion.

What we like:

  1. Having two three hour-exams may suit some bright students and forms an excellent bridge to University, where it is still the norm.  Some exams officers (i.e. where there are no extra-time candidates) may like the fact that it means fewer exams to enter-for, invigilate etc…?
  2. The specification is elegant, focused and minimalistic, without the reams of detail and tens of scholars name-dropped by eduqas.  This might mean that students get to spend more time getting to really understand a narrower band of material – although it might not pan out like that in the end.
  3. The Philosophy of Religion and Ethics paper looks like it would be a joy to teach (no surprises really).  The Christianity element looks much like other boards, though marginally less demanding than eduqas and less interesting than OCR.  The non-Christian religions options for AQA could be worth considering, especially with bright students e.g. in London day schools. The “Dialogues” topics look interesting and challenging… but will come in the second half of a 3 hour exam.

Edexcel also offers three two-hour exams, but chooses a complicated question structure in each with all the questions being compulsory and being liable to be taken from anywhere or link across a very big body of specified material.  Edexcel add set-texts for each paper into the mix as well, which will will them some fans but it won’t be to everybody’s taste.  For the three Edexcel exams, Section A consists of two structured questions, section B of one two-part essay question on an excerpt, sourced from the list of set-texts (they provide a free anthology, which you can’t take into the exam) section C of just one extended essay question.  What we like:

  1. The three different question types and the compulsory-questions approach, plus the set-texts, will make sure that Edexcel candidates really know their stuff!  This could be good news for Universities.
  2. The content treads a line between the overkill-detail provided by eduqas and the minimalism of AQA.  It looks like a quite reasonable selection of topics and scholars, challenging but not ridiculous.  For example, Copleston and Russell as the key scholars to compare for Philosophy of Religion seems really accessible, but the set-texts for the same paper otherwise.
  3. We like Peter being cited alongside Jack Dominion as the authority on Sexual Ethics… but this is probably not a sensible point.  Seriously, we like Edexcel’s commitment in offering a New Testament option, when nobody else has.  Although almost nobody will take it, this combined with the Philosophy of Religion and Religious Ethics would be a great choice for able students and could be very exciting. Selling it will be another matter though… although now the alternative might be Christianity, maybe this will not be an insurmountable issue.

Overall, my pick of the new specifications is OCR, followed by Edexcel with the New Testament option.  Having said that I have jumped ship and chosen to go with the PreU with my own department, and know of other Independent Schools who have done the same.  As I wrote before, I really like the PreU approach and think it will be more appropriate – even more accessible – for my very mixed ability students.  Anyway, time will tell.




  • Avatar
    Posted at 12:24h, 20 May

    Thanks for this, Charlotte; I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by all the new specifications and having looked at the PreU course following your recommendation above it does look more accessible for my students too.

    It looks as though their spec runs up until 2018 – do you know what will happen after that? I’d hate to choose a course, run it for one cycle, and then have to change again? Also, do you know if there’s anything in the way of resources for the PreU course?

    • Avatar
      Candle Conferences
      Posted at 14:05h, 22 May

      Hi Linz. The answer is that I don’t know. It has been running almost unchanged since 2008 and they have built up a loyal following overseas as well as in the UK, so I can’t see that they will want to change radically, although there will be pressure if the A level turns out to be actually harder. My impression is that the major marketing points for PreU are its rigour and connection with leading university courses and the choice it offers to schools. If they continue with it in the medium-long term – and that will be a commercial decision dictated by the number of schools that opt for it – my guess is that they will want to retain the choice now that A Level doesn’t offer any, and that they will want to keep it on level-pegging or a bit higher in terms of demand.